Saturday, July 14, 2012

El Sur - Empanadas

Last week I had the pleasure of attending El Sur's Off the Grid (Lower Haight) debut. This was a highly anticipated visit, as I had been hearing about how wonderful the empanadas were for months now, and I love empanadas! I share a common friend with El Sur's  creator and chef, Marianne Despres, and long before the truck's launch our friend described the empanadas to me in such detail that my mouth was watering before I even had the opportunity to try them. Luckily, my curiosity and taste buds were satiated last Thursday night.

Despres, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, is a classically trained chef whose culinary experience includes the French Laundry. She previously ran a successful catering company in the Bay Area but then realized she wanted to cook the food that she grew up with - cuisine from Argentina and Peru. Thus, El Sur was born.

Before I even mention the empanadas, I just have to write about the truck itself. It's just about the coolest, cutest food truck I have ever seen! I literally wanted to jump inside, steal the keys and just drive it on home and keep it for myself. The truck is a fully-restored 1970 Citroen H-Van, hailing from Auxerre, France. Check out El Sur's website for photographs of its transformation, and I guarantee that when you see it live in person, you too will fall in love.

El Sur's menu consists of four types of empanadas, and for my visit, I decided to try them all. They also offer a dinner special, which consists of three empanadas and a side-salad of mixed greens. I had every intention of trying the dulce de leche filled churro for dessert, but I completely forgot! (How did this happen? Spacey! How could I possibly forget any churro, let alone one filled with dulce de leche!) The empanadas are baked fresh on the truck, and after a brief wait for the beef ones to finish cooking, I was given my piping hot order. The empanadas were served with two dipping sauces, one creamy and one tomato based.

The fun part about ordering a variety of empanadas is that each one is like a little present, each with its own beautiful wrapping. Argentinean empanadas, especially, have special designs on the edges that denote what variety it is, though with the international recipes Despres has on the menu I couldn't figure out what was what from the outside. I let my son choose the first one to try, and his instincts were correct because he chose the one that ended up being my favorite. He pointed to one of the small round ones (we had an extra, thanks to Marianne) and cut it in half to check out the filling. This one was the Parisien - the one glorified by my friend and also the hit of our evening. The Parisien is filled with country ham, prosciutto, green onions and a blend of five cheeses. The shell was buttery, flaky and extremely rich - exactly the perfect crust to hold such a delicate, yet vivid filling. The combination of ham, prosciutto and cheese made it slightly on the salty side, but since I love salt, I found it extremely pleasing. The leeks/green onions gave it a nice fresh flavor, almost spring-like, and it really brought the whole empanada together. It was a hit with the child as well!

We cut into the Pollo Saltado (chicken) for our next empanada, and the flavours were completely different from the Parisien, so that too was a nice surprise. It was as if I had hopped on a plane that just took me from Paris to Buenos Aires. The filling consisted of bite-size pieces of chicken that were very moist and tender, surrounded by a mixture of onions, tomatoes and olives. I really loved how the strong flavor of the olives just made this empanada pop. Everything was complimentary, and it was well-seasoned.

By now my son was full, and my veggie-loving husband eschews beef, so I didn't have to share the third empanada - the Traditional beef. Well, it's their loss because it was fantastic! It was actually so tasty that I kept right on eating and forgot to take any pictures - oops! It was saucy, the beef was super tender and the onions really dazzled. Here the olives were a bit more subtle than in the chicken, but when you caught a bite with them, they added a burst of flavor.

Lastly I tried the vegetarian option, the Verde, which consisted of Swiss chard, spinach, green onions and a blend of cheeses. The best way I can describe it was that it almost tasted like a mini-quiche. The spinach gave it a nice, fresh spring flavor, and the cheeses were dense and flavorful. I am sure this will satisfy many a vegetarian, especially paired with the side salad.

The great thing about empanadas is that they are a grab and go snack. So if you don't get a huge box like I did, you can pick one up and stroll around about your day. It is the quintessential street food. If I had to recommend only one it would definitely be the Parisien, but all of them were quite lovely and are sure to please any palate.

Rating: 4/5 (ratings guide)

El Sur (@elsursf) $3.50 per empanada, or $11 for any three and a side salad

Does reading this make you want to try this vendor? Tell them that you saw them at I Left My Cart in San Francisco and support San Francisco street cuisine!

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